Colin Morris has been tasked with leading Gifford’s consultancy operations in the Middle East. He says the contractual regime in the UAE significantly lags the UK. MEP Middle East asks how things can be speeded up.
Morris says many contractual relationships in the UAE are still dominated by the tried-and-tested methods of the past. “You get an initial concept, an architect develops some excellent graphics and visualisations, and then the project is put out to tender. Unfortunately, often the cheapest consultant takes it to delivery in the shortest time possible. As long as projects were produced on time and developers got their money, they often did not care enough about the actual product delivered.”
This situation is now changing by dint of the global financial meltdown, which has dealt a serious blow to the UAE’s real-estate market, particularly in Dubai. Declining rentals have meant that customers are faced with more choices and control over where they want to live, work and play, combined with a growing emphasis on environmental awareness.
“In the past, developers were not really worried about the actual outcome of projects, but were focused on optimising time and money,” said Morris. Now the lifecycle costing of buildings is increasingly being taken into account, along with ancillary issues such as operating costs, energy efficiency and resource optimisation.
Morris says part of the problem was that the built environment had always been looked at in isolation. “Developers were not questioning the social and economic viability of what they were doing, which meant they were not looking at producing sustainable communities.” However, an example of the radical shift in attitudes is Abu Dhabi’s 2030 Plan, which addresses these issues and focuses on harnessing renewable energy and ‘green’ master-planning.
“Dubai is only now starting to look properly at these issues. Part of the current crisis is due to the fact that the built environment was never supported by social or environmental considerations. Now that the economic support has given way, an entire industry has been revealed to lack stability. The current crisis has shown the lack of proper support and integration, which in short points to a lack of long-term planning,” argues Morris.
Dubai has another potential ‘green’ time-bomb in the wings, namely retrofitting existing buildings to become energy efficient and compliant with internationally-accepted environmental standards. “A lot of buildings were not built with space optimisation in mind; they simply had to be taller or better looking than any others. No one was thinking of how much it would cost to operate such buildings in the long run, as this was simply not a priority at the time. Now aspects such as occupant-friendliness and integration with local infrastructure and transportation networks are becoming vitally important factors,” says Morris.
The focus has shifted from iconic structures to integrated communities, which have clearly defined centres and adequate infrastructure, including transportation. The Dubai Metro is a start in the right direction, though Morris says there are still parking and inter-connection issues that need to be ironed out, such as adding extra lines to turn it into a “fully workable” transport solution for Dubai.
“Even then, the question of linking it up to the broader regional infrastructure still has to be addressed. There is also the huge cost associated with the project, and whether or not it might have been cheaper to adopt, say, the Rapid Bus Transit System deployed in Brazil, for example,” says Morris.
Morris is a highly qualified and experienced tri-chartered engineer, as well as being the youngest Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. He has degrees in mechanical engineering and building services – and even in defence studies. (His achievements include qualifying as a pilot with the Royal Air Force, and having completed the Advanced Command and Staff Course (ACSC) at the Joint Services Command and Staff College.)
Prior to Gifford, Morris was a regional director at Halcrow, where he headed up project management and site supervision in the Middle East for 18 months. He was project director on a number of high-rise buildings and resorts, including working at Dubai Marina, while in the UK he led the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) Estates Special Projects. He was programme manager for the Catterick Super Garrison redevelopment programme, which had a price tag of a billion pounds. Morris has also worked in Saudi Arabia, managing a variety of engineering programmes between the Kingdom and the UK. He led the first zero-carbon development at Whittington Barracks in the UK before moving to Dubai.
It this wealth of diverse professional qualifications, combined with solid on-the-ground experience, that gives Morris such an insight into the broader Middle East market, particularly his familiarity with prime contracting at the MoD in the UK. (Prime contracting is a procurement model for construction and maintenance based on optimising value-for-money through collaboration and minimising the number of direct contracts.)
This procurement model holds important lessons for the UAE, argues Morris, where structural engineering and MEP are often separated from each other, when in fact they are different sides of the same coin. “A large part of my role here has been to tie up disparate disciplines in terms of project management, setting up project teams, and getting involved with the bigger clients. Prime contracting is essentially all about getting professionals and clients to talk to each other.”
Morris says the main problem with the construction industry in the UAE has been “very tight programmes, combined with unrealistic client expectations in terms of delivery.” He says the market should no longer be dominated by a ‘cheapest past the post’ mentality. “Many clients were only interested in a quick turnaround, especially in Dubai. The UK market is used to detailed business case studies to support financial decisions; clients here must have a business case, too.”
A big problem is that some developers have never tackled a project before. They simply came into some capital and decided to invest it in the construction of “something flashy, with a quick return.” Morris says the market is slowly realising that the real cost is not the upfront investment, but lies hidden in the long-term operating costs. “The Dubai attitude has been that, once it is built, it becomes someone else’s responsibility. This must change.” Aspects such as service corridors and expansion of plant-room space have simply not been taken into account; neither is safe operation nor maintenance of a building.
“There is a lot you can do if you have an optimal building envelope. For example, a very tall or thin building is difficult to retrofit to improve the energy efficiency. With the current economic downturn, we are probably going to see a lot of changes in building use, but many buildings have not been designed with such flexibility in mind.” However, a building engineer like Gifford can use its advanced modelling techniques, together with its expert knowledge of high-rise structural design, to obtain optimal solutions.
60-YEAR BUILDING LIFE
In the UK, for example, buildings are being planned with an active lifespan of 60 years. “A lot of thought goes into this planning process, whereas the market mentality here has simply been we can knock it down and build something else. This has resulted in the demolition of structures that have not even attained the end of their useful structural life.”
Morris insists that “the MEP contractor and designer should be brought in at an early enough stage in order to be able to influence the design process. I have seen some very good ideas come from the contractor at an early stage which changed the scheme completely, and made it a lot more effective and efficient for the client and the end user. If you have the entire supply chain involved early on, you can optimise building performance easily.”
Colin Morris is a newly-appointed director at Gifford’s Dubai office, overseeing the consultancy’s activities in the Middle East. Gifford is an international engineering and environmental design consultancy, with 750 staff worldwide. It provides a range of engineering services, from MEP, roads and bridges to maritime and rail infrastructure and environmental development planning services.